Columnist by Vijay Prashad: The virus of austerity

  • An Indian wears a mask and walks on a street in Hyderabad, India, Thursday, March 5, 2020. ap

Published: 4/6/2020 4:07:31 PM

SARS-CoV-2 is a particularly lethal virus, which has marched across the planet, killing tens of thousands of people, and shutting down society.

It has now begun to lap at the edges of some of the poorest areas of the world, the slums of India and the favelas of Brazil. What impact this global pandemic will have there is still to be seen.

In the Mexico newspaper La Jornada, Miguel Tinker Salas and Victor Silverman write that the virus comes from nature, but the crisis comes from neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is the political philosophy that has urged governments over the course of the past 50 years to cut social spending, cut taxes and allow the magical markets to allocate resources effectively. The virus has done damage; but the real damage has been done by this political philosophy.

Few countries have been able to withstand the tsunami from neoliberalism. It begins when the wealthy withdraw money from their tax jurisdiction and hide it in tax shelters and tax havens. This means that countries cannot raise enough revenue for their budgets.

Then the game deepens when pressure is put on governments to pass balanced budgets amendments. The mathematics is simple: less money coming in, less money for spending on social life even as vast amounts of money are spent on the military.

Less spending on the social side means less money for health and education, and more pressure to sell these off into the private sector. The problem with having health and education in the private sector is that these are designed for profit and not for the social good. Hospitals are run like any rental property. It is a waste of the asset if there is too much spare capacity, so that hospitals — like renters — drive an agenda for maximum occupancy. When there is a pandemic, there is simply no surge capacity in these lean and efficient (in terms of profit maximization) medical institutions.

Cuts, cuts, cuts.

The numbers are appalling. The budget for the Centers for Disease Control was cut by 10% from 2010 to 2019. Federal funding to help state and local officials in a time of emergency was sliced from $1 billion (2001) to $650 million (2019). Because of this, state and local health departments had to lay off 55,000 people between 2008 and 2017; that’s one in five health workers. In 2008, the Association of Schools and Programs in Public Health reported that by 2020 “the nation will be facing as shortfall of more than 250,000 public health workers.”

You can’t create a civilization that cuts so close to the bone. Where’s the money to fund this, you ask? What about if the very rich pay their taxes. They don’t pay taxes, and then donate a miniscule amount of their income. Taxation is democratic; the money is recycled into democratic institutions which make democratic decisions about how to use the money. Philanthropy is monarchical; the rich donate money, expect to be celebrated, and have their names put all over the place as commemoration. We need more taxation and less philanthropy.

In all this, workers in these sectors have been pushed to the limit long before the pandemic. When medical workers — such as nurses — attempt to form unions and have a voice in issues of management and safety, they are shut down. That there is now a crisis of basic protective equipment for health care workers cannot be blamed entirely on President Donald Trump; that’s too convenient.

So many private hospital conglomerates spent vast amounts of money smashing unionization efforts by nurses — most of whom, as frontline workers, have the best ideas for safety of patients and themselves. It is one thing to go out and bang pots and pans to support essential workers; it is another to afford workers the dignity of living wages and control over their workplace. It is time that lesson was fully absorbed.

Vijay Prashad, who lives in Northampton, was born and raised in Kolkata (India). He is the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research.
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